New research has identified better ways to predict how climate change and water management practices will affect fish populations and river red gum forests in the southern Murray-Darling Basin.

Led by Professor Ralph Mac Nally, scientists from Monash University's Australian Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) developed models that linked ecology and hydrology to better inform management of Australia's river systems in the face of increasing water scarcity.

Professor Mac Nally, Director of the ACB, said the results highlighted the importance of water-management practices to the future viability of Australia's river systems, showing that management may pose a greater risk than climate change for some fish species.

"We found that the effects of different water-management regimes were more important than the impacts of a drying climate for some of the fish populations, but the floodplain forests have been badly affected by both," Professor Mac Nally said.

"Improving the ecological health of Australia’s river systems, while maintaining agricultural outputs and human use, will require careful balancing of the compromises among different water users."

Responding to the brief of 'do more with less water', the team, including Jian Yen, Danny Spring and Will Shenton from the ACB, and Nick Bond from Griffith University, contributed to the $10 million Farms, Rivers and Markets project funded by the National Water Commission. The research focused on the Murray-Darling Basin, currently the source of much controversy over the division of water to agriculture, to domestic use and to maintain healthy rivers.

“This was an exciting opportunity to bring advances in fundamental and applied ecology to bear on the social and economic well-being of the nation’s bread-basket, the Murray-Darling Basin,” Professor Mac Nally said.

"We've recently experienced southeastern Australia's longest recorded drought and predictions point to a drier and hotter future. Finding advanced ways to meet the needs of all water users is an important research area with high significance to Australia’s future."

The outcomes of the research, soon to be published in Environmental Management, will be integrated with parallel research from The University of Melbourne on farm management and the economics of water trading. It is the first project to link these three vital aspects of resource management. 

The article is available online in advance of print publication.